The letter Screwtape should have written

It is not [the Christian’s] primary task to think out plans, programmes, methods of action and of achievement. When Christians do this (and there is an epidemic of this behavior at the present time in the Church) it is simply an imitation of the world, and is doomed to defeat.

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (1967), 80.



If C. S. Lewis lived today he may well have appended one last letter from Master Tempter Screwtape to his apprentice Wormwood (in The Screwtape Letters). In it the old master would have encouraged the young tempter to try to lead his convert down the byway of technique into the cesspool of causation. 

Now in leadership in the church, Wormwood’s quarry would be encouraged to come to think of ministry as something that requires the securing of the correct technique. The right words. The right affect. The right strategy. He would be encouraged to believe that any number of things could be a substitute for personal holiness in the life of the Christian minister. Would it not be better to have a highly relational pagan as a minister than an introverted saint? Ministers are, after all, people persons–like those in sales.

The byway of technique leads to the cesspool of causation. When mired in this desolate place, the Christian comes to believe that having the right technique will (of necessity) bring around a desired result). In so believing he replaces God with an idol of his own creation.

I don’t know if our churches and ministry organizations have moved beyond using planning and training as a tool and into the zone of making it the church’s reason for being. I hope not. The church’s reason for being is to be the incarnate community of God who lives the Gospel in a way centered on the Word and Sacraments by which they participate in the life of God. 

Planning and training can be no substitute for prayer, the word, and the table. To confuse them is to cause the church to lose its uniqueness and to negate its mission.




What is the Gospel?

One of the challenges of ministering in the context of a pluralistic university and as Teaching Elder in a broad church, is defining the simple word “gospel.”

In the university the word is alien except for those who are Christian. And in the context of the campus Christian community, there are a multiplicity of ways to give language to a message that is also a lived experience.

The word pops up fairly regularly in a various position papers and edicts from the Presbyterian Church (USA), but it is always left undefined–a word into which we may pour our own meaning. And while way in which each Christian comes to be so is unique, the message that describes the reality experienced by each is the same. 


So…what is the Gospel?

“Gospel,” of course, is derived from the Old English gōd-spell, which means “good news” or “glad tidings.” The Gospel is a message. It is something that is communicated and relayed to those who have never heard it or, perhaps, have misheard the message before.

The Gospel is also a message that has content. Important messages have content. If someone walked up to you and said, “the eagle has landed” you would probably be momentarily perplexed and the go on with your day attributing the message to some problem with the messenger and of no concern to you.

On the other hand, if the year was 1969 and you were a controller sitting in mission control listening to audio feed from Apollo 11 and you heard, “Houston. Tranquility base here. The eagle has landed,” this message would have distinct content–news of the first successful moon landing.

As with the second example, the Gospel is a message with specific content. In his excellent  book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, Jim Belcher provides an excellent explanation of the content of the message (from a vision document used by his PCA church):

…The “gospel” is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. Through the Savior God has established his reign. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. We witness this radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and community transformation. This good news brings new life. The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship. (p.131)

This explication avoids making “gospel” simply an academic word that can be debated, discussed, and dissected by theologians alone. Instead, Gospel becomes a word that belongs to the church, and to every member of that company. It’s a personal word because this message changes our lives here and now:

  1. Jesus is the Messiah–the deliverer sent from God.
  2. God has entered the world and begun His renewal project.
  3. God’s reign has been established.
  4. In believing this message, we are reconciled to God.
  5. God’s powers enters our lives.
  6. Our lives become radically realigned to God’s values.
  7. We experience deep community.
  8. We yearn for and work for justice through deeds of mercy.
  9. We practice our vocation as a way of transforming culture.
  10. We are enabled to truly worship God and live our lives for Him.

In other words, the Gospel is the foundation of the Christian life.

Without the Gospel working for social justice becomes simple political activism and creates anger, guilt, and resentment.

Without the Gospel work becomes an end in itself and an idol.

Without the Gospel community becomes a commodity that we consume rather than a reality we embrace and something we give ourselves to.

That’s why the failure to be clear about the whole Gospel is central to a life of Christian faithfulness.


In the midst of life, we are in death

I was lining up at gate B10 at the Atlanta airport, waiting to catch my flight to Nashville. All of a sudden the silence of the gate area was broken by a cry of “Make way! We need room!” Around the corner emerged some paramedics pushing a large, shirtless man on a gurney. His face was covered by an oxygen mask. He looked less frightened than in great pain. He groaned repeatedly as he was hurriedly rushed to the waiting ambulance. I prayed.

As I continued into the jet bridge, I couldn’t help pondering how mortaliy had invaded that man’s life; how death was trying to push its way into life.


Certainly, at the beginning of his day that man had not given much thought to that fact that today might have been his last. I know that as I got into my car and drove to the Greensboro airport, I didn’t pause to consider it. Most days, even in Lent, I’m ignorant (or at least only subconsciously aware) of my mortality.

It’s with good cause that many Compline services end with a prayer that acknowledges before God our need of His persevering grace should we pass from this life into the next while we sleep.

Our culture is profoundly afraid of death. We are remarkably detached from mortality. We committed to perpetuating a strong delineation between life and death–we don’t die well, nor do those of us who continue to live do well in experiencing the death of another.

The church must give closer attention to the way it guides parishioners in approaching death and in the way we walk with those whose friends or loved ones die. We need a theology of death.

What is the church?

The gospel teaches us that the Church is the one and only foretaste of heaven now because she alone has a real participation in the life of God on earth…. This divine reality of foretaste and first fruits is the key to understanding the Church’s power and relevance.

Scot Sherman, “Why the Church?” in Looking Forward: Voices from Church Leaders on Our Global Mission. (MTW, 2003).

Why become a Christian?

Mission must spring from a lead back into a quality of life which seems intrinsically worth having in itself. If we answer the question “why should I become a Christian?” simply by saying “In order to make other Christians,” we are involved in infinite regress. The question “to what end?” cannot simply be postponed to the eschaton…the life in Christ is not merely the instrument of the apostolic mission, it is also its end and purpose.

-Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, 147.

[Missional Monday 3] – Why prayer is the fuel of missional ministry

This is the third post in our series about missional ministry. In the first post I defined what missional is. I defined being missional as, “at it’s heart being…about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence. I argued that the church needs adaptive change–a change in strategy–to a missional model of church rather than tactical change (like altering church service times or simply adding a contemporary service).

In the second post I noted that it’s impossible to be missional alone. I noted that community is essential to missional ministry for four reasons: security, encouragement, accountability, and perspective. This week we ask the question: what role does prayer play in missional ministry?

In our exploration of missional ministry, we’ve used the account of the sending of the seventy-two as a foundation or starting point for our discussion. To recap, this is the first ‘sending’ of the church into the community for the purpose of the proclamation of the Gospel and the establishment of kingdom outposts in advance of Jesus’ visit to particular cities in order to preach. The account is found in Luke 10:1-11, which is reproduced below.

call to be missional the_t_nv

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’

The missional vision for ministry–a vision which sees the church in a missionary encounter with culture–was certainly lived out by the early church.

The church of the early Twenty-First century is being called back to this approach. As we attempt to make the missional shift, one question plagues me. Does the church of the Twenty-First century have the character and the practices to be ample to engage in missional ministry in a Godly way? 

I could ask the question another way: is the current church sufficiently rooted in Christ so that this shift will be more than simply a fad or a trend, but will be the product of deep repentance for missed opportunities, the product of a deep desire for the salvation of men and women, and the product of a profound wish for the church to be collectively faithful to the witness of Scripture in describing and envisioning the church as a missional community?

If this is to be the case then we have to ensure that the church places prayer front and center in its mission. It’s important to begin with a simple definition of prayer.

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of the Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 98

In other words, prayer is talking to God. Sometimes we talk to those we love formally, and sometimes we talk with them informally. It’s the same with prayer. Sometimes we will speak with God using formal, set prayers. At other times we will simply tell him what’s on our heart.

Prayer is the fuel of missional ministry. More precisely, common prayer is the fuel of missional ministry. A missional church will structure its life together around common prayer. The form of prayer will vary with the tradition of which the church is a part, but what’s not up for debate is the primacy of prayer in the life of the church. Why?

  1. Prayer brings us into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. As Christians we are connected to the Godhead through the Holy Spirit who lives in us. In a sense, it is God who enables us to pray and it is God who gives us the words to pray, and it is God who carries our prayer and receives our prayer. C. S. Lewis notes this in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer when he writes that, essentially, prayer is God talking to Himself.
  2. Prayer is a means of grace. We need grace for the journey. The way we are walking is greater than our ability to complete. The journey of faith is like the Appalachian Trail–we need a guide and we need a power greater than our own. In prayer we receive the sustaining grace of God that can carry us in our journey.
  3. Prayer forms the way we think and act. This is most powerfully true when we become familiar with praying a set liturgy or a portion of the Scripture. When we pray, we name reality before God and ask him to intervene. This is all the more powerful when in our naming of reality we are aided by the prayers of others who have gone before us.
  4. Prayer connects us with one another. Common prayer provides a powerful context for reconciliation and repentance against those in our number who we have wronged or who have wronged us. This sets the stage for a powerful unity in love that enables the fellowship to be willing to try new things and to reach out.

The church that wishes to be missional must pay attention to the requirements of community and prayer before anything else. Failing to pay attention to this will derail a community as it attempts to make the missional shift.

[Missional Monday 1] What is missional?

This is the first post in a series about how congregations can become more missional in how they understand and carry out ministry in their community. Missional is popular. A lot people are using the word, but I’m not always sure how clear they are on its meaning.

A simple way to get a little bit better of a handle on this word is to substitute “missionary” for “missional.” I’m sure there were good reasons for choosing missional over missionary, probably related to some of the cultural baggage associated with missionary, but the two words are both derived from the root word “mission” and essentially mean the same thing.

“Missional living” becomes “missionary living” and

“missional church” becomes “missionary church.”

At it’s heart being missional is about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence, where it was surely meant to be all along. Let me unpack that a little.

call to be missional the_t_nv

The central belief of those of us who affirm a missional/-ary theology is that it is the nature of God to act in the world and that His action is in furtherance of His purposes. Ultimately, God is the initiative-taker, and nothing happens absent His first acting.

The church has been brought into being by the action of God with a distinct charter and purpose. In like manner to the way in which God sent His Son into the world to redeem a people through his perfect life, atoning death, and overcame sin in His resurrection, the church is sent into the world with a message. Jesus says as much, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (ESV).

That message is the gospel, the good news or glad tidings of Jesus’ victory over sin and death and this ushering in the kingdom of God. As Jesus ends His earthly ministry, He launches the church:

6Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Mt 28:16-20, ESV]

Encapsulated in a relatively few words are the entire mission of the church. We are out into the world to:

  1. make disciples (which includes evangelism and discipleship),
  2. to administer the sacraments,
  3. to catechize and instruct Christians in godliness,
  4. and to do so in the fellowship and with the power of the risen Son of God until time is no more.

As the church goes it must go with a certain type of posture. This is critical. As the church goes into the world, it must go as a missionary.

One of the central observation of missional theologians is that we have reached, as a culture, a tipping point–we have become a culture that no longer privileges Christianity. Clearly American culture is not monochromatic so the degree to which we are secular varies by region. Even in the south, I think, it is fair to say that Christianity is no longer privileged by the culture. It is no longer the assumed religion of everyone.

As the church is going, it is going into something new: a post-Christendom culture. This is a cross-cultural journey as so requires several things:

  1. Interpretive acuity: as Christians engage culture, we have to learn to interpret it. What are our culture’s deepest values? What are our gods? What is missing? Who is missing? How do we relate to one another?
  2. Wisdom: we have to be able to be aware of what we know and what we no longer know. For this journey, things written a thousand years ago in pre-Christian europe will be more helpful than something written by a 1980s church growth guru.
  3. Humility: we’re not the “it thing” anymore. In some ways, people are beginning to look at the church like they look at the Rotary Club–they’re not even sure they know what it is. Even if you invite them, it won’t be enough to overcome the growing barriers. I’m not talking about the false humility of progressive Christians. I do not believe that the Gospel has changed–we preach the same message yet vary the context and the means.
  4. Attentiveness: a cross-cultural encounter requires attention to observe and thereby learn more about the culture in which you find yourself. The missional church and the missional Christian will be making perpetual observations about their city, their culture, and factoring that into their engagement with it.
  5. Curiosity: one of the biggest reason I love to travel is because I’m curious about all manner of things. Missional Christians have to be curious about what makes our friends and our cities tick. We want to enter into their mind and see what they see not simply to convert them, but because there’s inherent value in coming to see the world through another’s eyes.
  6. Flexibility: we’re going to have to be flexible in our definition of success, in our way of doing and being church, and in a whole lot of other things. Christians who worship abroad often encounter practices that are uncomfortable and, for the most part, are able to live with the tension. God is asking us to become uncomfortable in certain ways in order to truly be missionaries for his gospel.

In my next post, I’ll explore the difference between “missional” and “attractional” as two distinct ways of understanding the ministry of the church and of the Christian. I’ll argue for something I call “hybrid church,” that is a blending of missional and attractional ways of doing church. 

Is gay marriage the church’s “next big thing?”

Our current cultural moment is a perfect storm with respect to human sexuality. The broader culture has placed sexuality squarely in the hands of the autonomous and sovereign individual. In like manner–perhaps fearing increasing irrelevancy if it fails to do so–the church abdicated its authority to speak into the lives of its members, helping them to understand sexuality in a manner grounded squarely in the history of Christian theological reflection on Scripture.

As a result, with increasing speed it seems that progressive Christians are making headway in subverting the traditional understanding of human sexuality and replacing it with a thoroughly individualistic substitute.

In the process, they have also succeeded in eviscerating the message of the Christian gospel. Perhaps, in the words of St. Paul, they find the gospel to be “foolishness” and in need of replacement with a message more suited to the times. This new gospel is one of “inclusion,” which is understood to be the unquestioning affirmation of the validity of first person experiences with respect to sexuality. There is little room for any concept of disordered or misplaced affections. If you feel, it is argued, it must be true. And if this is true, then it makes sense to allow individuals to express themselves in the setting of the church through the blessing of same sex marriages.

Read the rest of the post here.

A new resource for celebrating the liturgical year, at home

This Lord’s Day is the first Sunday in the new liturgical year–the first Sunday in Advent. It’s a wonderful time jump into the story of God’s redemptive work in the story of Christ. Anna and I have really come to value the church calendar as an aid to our spiritual development and Christianity maturity. We have found that following the rhythm of the church calendar provides a powerful counter-narrative to the one provided by our culture. In our postmodern period, narrative is the single most formative element both for a culture and for a people, the church.

If you’ve ever wondered how powerful the culture’s narrative is, you need only consider Christmas Day itself. Two examples:

  • Most evangelical Christians do not attend worship on Christmas Day.
  • If Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, many evangelical churches cancel worship.


To unpack this a little bit. By doing this, we are following in the culture’s story about Christmas–that it is a day for family, for fun, for lazing around in pajamas while opening presents. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for this.

However, Scriptures suggests to us that our sisters and brothers in the faith at the parish of which we’re a part are just as much, if not more, our family than those biologically or legally related to us.

This reality calls into question our forsaking corporate worship on Christmas Day. It also shows how important it is for us to have our faith shaped by the beliefs and practices of the Christian Church across the ages.
I’m happy to announce a new resource to help you and your family enter into this important spiritual practice. Doulos Resources is publishing a new title in 2013 with the working title, Celebrating the Church Year in the Home. This book is an excellent guide (both theologically and also in terms of practice) for individuals and families who want to deepen their faith through this important aspect of Christian spirituality.

Editor Jessica Snell summarizes the project like this:

It’s a book that will gather, in one place, all the information you need in order to match the rhythm of your home life to the rhythm of the church year. Is it Advent? Open the book to the chapter on Advent, and find seasonal prayers, recipes, and crafts, as well as the history of the season, and ideas for extending your celebration to include friends and neighbors. And the same for Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter . . . there’s not a season in the year we’re not covering!

My wife has written the chapter exploring the theology and practice of Epiphany. Anna has spent the last several years researching in the area of the theological meaning of the New Testament’s use of family metaphors for the Christian community (she is currently completing her thesis on this subject). In others words: I can’t think of someone more qualified to unpack the meaning of the church calendar for discipleship–both in the home and in the church–than her.

The book will go to press in 2013 and will be ready for your use at that time. Electronic copies may be available earlier.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and let it help you and your family grow in the practice of the Christian faith.

Note: I also recommend Bobby Gross’s excellent book Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God